By Karen Lynch
Copyright @ 2020 Karen A Lynch
This is a sample. The number of pages is limited.
Jesse risked everything to bring her mother and father home, but her life is far from back to normal. With her parents’ memories of their abduction gone, Jesse is no closer to finding answers, and the threat still looms over her family.
When the Agency announces that a powerful Fae artifact is missing, Jesse suspects it’s connected to her parents’ disappearance. Until the artifact is found, her family will never be safe. This job might be more than she can handle alone, but is she willing to accept help from the people who betrayed her, from the one person she is trying hard to forget?
The only thing Jesse knows for sure is that the game is not over. The rules have changed, there are dangerous new players on the board, and the stakes are higher than ever. She’s always been smart and resourceful, but it might take the goddess herself to save Jesse from what comes next.
“Hey, watch it!”
“Sorry,” I called over my shoulder. I leaped over a basket of silk flowers that had been overturned by the elf I was chasing and sped down the row of tables.
Déjà vu hit me when I passed a display of banti dream catchers. Two and a half weeks ago, I had run through this same flea market after a different elf, and that visit hadn’t gone so well for me.
The elf ahead of me now was faster and more agile than Kardas, and he lengthened the distance between us with every stride. By the time I cleared the tables, he was already at the rear door that led to the parking lot. He opened the door, paused long enough to shoot me a victorious smirk, and ran outside.
Gritting my teeth, I put on an extra burst of speed and reached the door before it closed all the way. I dashed out into the bitter cold, my breath coming in steamy puffs as I locked my eyes on my target and set off after him.
The parking lot was covered in snow and ice from a recent storm, which made running impossible. Fortunately, elves didn’t handle ice any better than humans, and my quarry floundered when he hit an icy patch. Unfortunately, I hit one, too, and did my own impression of a dancing marionette.
I righted myself in time to see the elf take off again. I swore because there was no way I could catch him on foot now. But I’d be damned if I was letting this one get away.
I glanced around and spotted a family watching me from a few feet away. I ran over to the little girl, who held a pink plastic toboggan, and gave her my ID. “Hey, can I borrow that to catch a bad guy?”
“Sure!” When she handed me the toboggan, I grinned at her and took off running on a stretch of snow. I threw myself onto the toboggan and tucked my body low as I flew across the icy parking lot after the fleeing elf.
He looked back, and his eyes bulged when he saw me rapidly closing the distance between us. He tried to outrun me, but he hadn’t spent his childhood winters racing Violet in Prospect Park.
I ducked my head and slammed into his legs. His weight landed on top of me, but I was braced for it, and I rolled to the side, tipping him off me. He tried to scramble to his knees, but I was on him too quickly.
He swore and ranted at me as I shackled his hands behind his back. “I have friends, and they won’t take lightly to this.”
“If they’re anything like you, I’m sure you’ll be seeing them in Faerie soon,” I said, rolling him over.
The second I released him to stand, he tried to kick me in the head. I blocked the kick and flipped him onto his stomach. Kneeling on his back, I bent low to speak into his ear. “Try that again, and you’ll be getting ankle jewelry to match your bracelets.”
I grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. Clapping and cheering behind me had me turning to face the dozen or so people standing outside the building. The elf hadn’t made any friends here after he’d robbed so many people.
Picking up the toboggan, I gave the onlookers a tight smile and walked the elf to my Jeep. He balked at the sight of the iron cage in the back, but I was a little short on sympathy. These days, I wasn’t particularly fond of elves who broke the law. Every time I saw a male elf, I thought it could be Rogin or Kardas, who were probably on the other side of the world by now. I hated that I was letting those assholes get into my head, but I didn’t know how to stop it.
Once I had the elf secured in the cage, I shut the rear door and carried the toboggan back to the girl. “Thanks. I couldn’t have done that without you.”
“That was the most amazing thing I ever saw!” She glowed with excitement as she handed me my ID. “I’m going to be a bounty hunter just like you when I grow up.”
I glanced at her mother, who looked horrified by the idea. Some of my favorite people in the world were hunters, and I was tempted to speak up on their behalf. Instead, I said, “I bet you’ll be a great one.”
I walked back to the Jeep. I was about to open my door when I spotted a lone figure watching me with an unreadable expression from the other side of the street. A knot formed in my stomach as anger and a dart of fear went through me. What the hell was he doing here?
My cold gaze met Conlan’s. This was the first time I’d laid eyes on him or any of his friends since that morning in Rogin’s basement, and I wasn’t foolish enough to think this was a coincidence. If I’d learned anything about Lukas and his men, it was that they did nothing without purpose.
Whatever the reason, I wanted nothing to do with it or them. They’d gotten what they wanted, and in the end, so had I. As far as I was concerned, Prince Vaerik and his royal guard were a part of my past, and that was where they were going to stay.
Breaking our stare, I got into the Jeep. I didn’t cast another glance in Conlan’s direction, but I could feel his gaze on me as I drove out of the parking lot. It wasn’t until I was a few blocks away that I was able to breathe normally again, but I couldn’t stop worrying about what his sudden appearance meant for my family and me.
At the gym, later that afternoon, I was so distracted my trainer kept yelling at me to keep my head in the game. Maren was an ex-MMA fighter who’d gotten two world titles under her belt before she’d had to retire because of a spine injury. She was my parents’ trainer and in high demand, but she had agreed to take me on when I’d called her two weeks ago. She said I was a natural like my father, but I had a lot of work ahead of me.
“You call that a high kick?” she taunted. “My great aunt Franny can do better.”
I scowled at her and resumed my attack on the bag with renewed vigor, despite the fact I’d been going at this for almost an hour. If I didn’t put a hundred and ten percent into each workout, she would tack on something extra, like fifty pushups or a plank challenge. She was sweet like that.
I finished up the bag routine with a series of jabs and then rested my wrapped hands on my knees to catch my breath. Maren handed me my water bottle, and I gulped the water greedily.
“Ready for round two?” she asked.
I glared so hard at her she burst out laughing, her teeth a brilliant white in contrast with her dark skin.
She tossed me a towel. “Good job, kiddo.”
“Thanks.” I wiped my sweaty face and neck as I watched two regulars sparring in the ring. It reminded me of the times I’d come by the gym to watch Dad working with Maren, and I wondered how long it would be until he could step into the ring again.
Maren unwrapped my hands. “Your Mom and Dad are strong, Jesse. They’ll be back on their feet in no time.”
“I know.” I met her understanding gaze as my phone rang. I rarely let it out of my sight these days in case there was a call from the hospital. I snatched it up, and my heart thumped when I saw the hospital’s number. “Hello?”
“Jesse, this is Patty,” said a woman’s voice. No last name was necessary because I’d spoken to the nurse almost every day in the last two weeks. “Dr. Reddy asked me to call you and let you know your father is awake.”
“He’s awake?” I shouted. Dr. Reddy had told me they would start to wean my parents off the sedation drugs this week, but I hadn’t expected either of them to wake up this quickly. “Thank you! I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I smiled so wide at Maren my face hurt. “Dad’s awake! I have to go.”
Laughing, she grabbed my arm as I spun toward the exit. “Maybe you should shower and change first.”
“Oh.” I looked down at my sweaty sports bra and leggings and made a face. “That might be a good idea.”
I showered in record time, and ten minutes later, I waved goodbye to Maren as I ran out the door. The bitterly cold air stole my breath, and I was glad for the wool cap I’d pulled on over my damp hair.
It seemed to take forever to get to the hospital, and I nearly plowed into two people as I ran from the Jeep to the hospital entrance. Instead of waiting for the elevator, I raced up the four flights of stairs and emerged on the floor, panting from my mad dash.
Nurses smiled and waved at me as I hurried past them. I was a daily visitor, and they all knew me. Even the agent stationed outside my parents’ room greeted me with an austere tilt of his head.
Two days after my parents had been admitted to the hospital, they were moved to a private room, and an agent had arrived to stand guard outside their door. I’d wondered why the Agency would place a protective detail on two bounty hunters until I had gone in to give my full statement about what had happened. They’d questioned me for hours, and they had been particularly interested in hearing about the Seelie royal guard’s involvement in my parents’ disappearance. I couldn’t tell them why the guard had taken my parents, and the Agency was hoping to get answers when they woke up.
Having an armed agent on guard did little to ease my worry about my parents’ safety. The Seelie guard weren’t just any faeries, and if they wanted to get to my mom and dad, no agent was going to stop them. I’d reached out to Tennin because I’d learned it was he whom my parents had trusted to ward our apartment, but whenever I called him, his voice mail said he was in Faerie, with no mention of when he would return.
Dr. Reddy was in the room, which had been rearranged to accommodate two beds. He looked up from checking on my father and came over to meet me at the door. My gaze was fixed on the man in the hospital bed. He was lying on his back, and from here, I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open.
“Jesse,” Dr. Reddy said in a low voice, drawing my attention to him. “Your father’s awake, but I want to remind you he is very confused. Don’t be alarmed if he doesn’t respond to you at first. That might take a day.”
I peered around him at my father. “He hasn’t spoken yet?”
“No. But that is normal in a case like this.”
“Has anyone told him what happened?” I asked.
The doctor shook his head. “He’s too confused to process much right now. You can tell him if he asks, but keep it simple so you don’t overwhelm him.”
“Okay.” I let out a breath. “What about my mother? Will she wake up today, too?”
“She hasn’t shown any signs of waking. It could be another day or two.” The doctor adjusted his stethoscope around his neck. “I’ll stop by after my rounds to check in.”
“Thank you.” I walked over to my father, who appeared to be asleep. He looked the same as he had on every other visit, except for the noticeable absence of the feeding tube. I laid my hand over his cool, dry one that felt nothing like the strong, warm hand I was used to. “I’m here, Dad.”
His eyelids fluttered and lifted to reveal the blue eyes I’d waited almost two months to see again.
A crease formed in his brow, and I could see his eyes moving as he stared at the ceiling. I squeezed his hand gently, and he slanted a dazed look at me. My chest constricted when I saw no hint of recognition in his eyes, and I had to remind myself of what the doctor had said.
For a long moment, I stood beside his bed, holding his hand. I wanted so much to hug him, but I was afraid it would upset him in his current state. For now, I’d have to be content with knowing he was coming back to us.
I looked around for the chair I used on my visits and saw it in the corner. Letting go of his hand, I went to pull the chair over beside his bed.
A garbled sound from him had me running back to the bed. “I’m here.”
He looked at me, and this time he tilted his head in my direction to see me better. My breath caught when his mouth formed a word. “Jesse.”
I leaned down for the hug I desperately needed. “I missed you so much,” I whispered against his chest. He didn’t speak, but a few seconds later, his hand came to rest on my back. The comforting weight made me feel like a part of me that had been lost had come back.
Reluctantly, I let him go and straightened. Warmth flooded me when he gave me a weak smile and reached for my hand holding the bed rail. I grasped his larger hand and fought back the tears that threatened. I had to be strong for him and Mom and show them all they needed to worry about was getting better.
“Mom?” His voice was barely audible, but the worry in his eyes said what he could not.
“She’s right here.” I stepped back and pointed to the bed behind me. “The doctor said she’ll wake up soon.”
He strained to lift his head so he could see my mother lying in the other bed. I knew the moment he saw her because his face softened, and his whole body seemed to relax. He returned his gaze to me. “How…long?”
I hesitated to answer, unsure if he was asking how long they’d been here or how long they’d been missing.
His fingers flexed around mine. “How…long…gone?”
“A month.” Shock flashed in his eyes, and I gauged his reaction before I added, “You were found two weeks ago, and you’ve been in the hospital ever since.”
He frowned at the ceiling as if he was trying to remember, and I could see him getting frustrated when the memories wouldn’t come. I squeezed his hand. “It’s the drugs. The doctor said it could take a while for your memories to come back.”
The crease in his brow disappeared as he looked at me again. “You… Finch?”
“We’re doing great. I’ve been sneaking him in to see you when I can. He’s going to give me hell for not bringing him today.”
My father smiled, and it was in that moment I knew he would be okay. He had a difficult road ahead, but if anyone was strong enough to do it, it was him.
I spent the next half hour reassuring him things were okay at home, carefully omitting anything about my new career and most of what had been happening in my life while he was gone. When I left out the bounty hunting, my search for them, and Lukas, there wasn’t a whole lot left to tell, but he seemed too confused from the drugs to notice.
After a while, his face took on a pinched expression, and I could see he was in pain. He would never admit that, so I told him I was going to get some water, and I left the room in search of a nurse. I found Gloria, one of the regular nurses on this floor, and she consulted with Dr. Reddy about how much pain medicine my father was allowed to have.
I was waiting for her to end the call when I spotted a familiar figure emerging from the stairwell.
“Tennin.” I hurried toward him. “You got my messages.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Yes, all twenty-eight of them.”
I smiled. I’d called him twice a day for the last two weeks, and I didn’t feel the least bit guilty for filling up his voice mail.
“Your messages didn’t tell me much beyond that you’d found your parents and needed a ward placed on them. Do you want to fill me in?”
I nodded and looked around for somewhere to talk. The small waiting area wasn’t exactly private, but it was empty, and it would have to do. Keeping my voice low, I gave him a condensed version of what had happened at Rogin’s.
After everything had gone down, I’d realized Tennin had known Lukas’s identity all along. Lukas was an Unseelie prince after all. I didn’t hold it against Tennin because I understood faeries were loyal to their royals. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried to warn me away from Lukas and his men.
“Now you see why I need a protective ward on my parents,” I said when I was done.
Tennin pursed his lips. “My wards are very strong, but Queen Anwyn’s guard is ruthless. If they do come after your parents, you’ll want the strongest protection available.”
“Meaning what?” Fear sliced through me. Was he saying his magic couldn’t stop the royal guard?
“Meaning, I’ll have to add several layers of protection.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. You think your mother and father would let me ward your home if my wards weren’t some of the best?”
We walked to my parents’ room as Gloria came out and gave me a reassuring smile. The staff here was wonderful, and I’d miss them when my parents were moved to the treatment facility.
The agent posted outside the door put up a hand to stop us. “No unauthorized visitors allowed inside.”
“Tennin is a family friend, and he’s here at my request,” I told him.
The Agent shook his head. “No authorization, no entry.”
I crossed my arms. “Then call your superior and have them authorize him because he is going to enter that room.”
The two of us were locked in a stare down for a good ten seconds, until he nodded curtly and pulled out a phone. Tennin and I walked a few paces away while he made the call.
Tennin let out a low whistle when we were out of earshot. “You’ve come a long way from the girl who showed up at my place in November, and I feel compelled to add you’re hot when you’re bossy.”
I ignored his “hot” comment. “I’m not that girl anymore.”
“I think you are. A little jaded, maybe, but I still see her.”
Uncomfortable with his scrutiny, I changed the subject. “My father doesn’t know about my hunting or my involvement in their rescue. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention any of that around him.”
“You don’t think he’ll find out eventually?”
“I plan to tell him, but not until he’s stronger.” I glanced toward the room. “The drugs are messing with his head, and I don’t want to upset him.”
The agent walked over to us. “You have permission to go in,” he said to Tennin.
I smiled at the agent. “Thank you.”
He gave his customary nod and went back to his post outside the door.
I crossed the hallway and entered the room. Walking to my father’s bed, I found him sleeping peacefully, thanks to the pain meds Gloria had administered. It killed me to know this would be his life for the immediate future, but there was no other way to recover from a goren addiction.
I turned to look at Tennin, who was frowning in the doorway. “You can come in.”
He waved a hand through the air, and a stream of pale green magic flowed from his fingertips and immediately dissipated. Taking a step into the room, he repeated the action with the same result. He pressed his lips together and finally met my gaze. “Your parents have already been warded.”
Tennin nodded absently as he felt for the ward again. “And it’s a strong one, more powerful than mine.”
“Who would do that?” Other than me, the only people determined to protect my parents were the Agency, and they hadn’t mentioned a ward.
He didn’t answer right away. “Your mother and father have many bounty hunter friends. Perhaps one of them hired someone to ward your parents.”
My gaze swept the room as if I would spot the answer hiding in one of the corners. “It’s possible, but why wouldn’t they tell me? And how did they get in? The Agency has been guarding my parents around the clock.”
“That I cannot answer.” He swiped his hand through the air again as if testing the ward. “But this is the best ward money can buy. It will stop any attack from human or faerie. A bomb could go off in this room, and your parents wouldn’t get a scratch.”
“But it doesn’t keep faeries out if you’re able to come in.”
He put a hand to his chin. “It’s a very complex ward, made up of multiple layers. It would only allow me entry when you asked me to come in, and I suspect only you or your parents can invite a faerie in.”
Shock mingled with my relief. My parents were safe, but I had no idea who would go through this trouble for them.
Tennin smiled. “I guess my work here is done.”
“Wait. The old ward you did at my apartment required an incantation to let faeries in. This one doesn’t?”
“This is far more advanced than that one. You only have to invite a faerie into the room.”
“Like inviting a vampire in,” I said dryly, and he laughed.
I walked over to him. “Mom and Dad will be moved to the treatment facility in Long Island in a few days. Will you ward their room at the facility when they go there?”
“That won’t be necessary. When I said your parents were warded, I meant the magic is attached to them, not the room. The ward will stay with them wherever they go.”
I gaped at him. “You can ward a person?”
“If you know what you’re doing, yes. It’s not common knowledge, but many of your world leaders have body wards to protect them from assassination.”
“What about your royals? Are they warded, too?” I thought about the assassination attempt on Prince Vaerik that I’d help thwart. Had he been safe all along?
“Our own magic interferes with other magic, so wards don’t work on us.” Tennin smirked. “Except to keep us out.”
I digested this new bit of knowledge. “There is so much I don’t know.”
Tennin looked past me at my sleeping parents. “For a girl who doesn’t know much, you’ve done well. I’ll admit I didn’t have high expectations at first, and I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.” He lowered his voice. “Don’t tell your mother and father that I sent you to Teg’s.”
I laughed at his look of mock terror. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
He said he had to leave, and I walked him to the stairway exit since he hated to use the elevator.
“Tennin?” I said when we reached the door.
“What’s on your mind, Jesse?”
“Do you know if…?” I pressed my lips together as I thought of how to voice my question. “Can you tell me if Faris is okay? I understand if you can’t talk about him. I’d just like to know he made it.”
Surprise flickered in his eyes. “I haven’t heard anything, but if he had died, it would have been announced at court.”
I let out a breath. “That’s good to know.”
He tilted his head to study me. “You’re not going to ask about Lukas?”
“If that’s all then.” He reached for the door.
“There is one more thing. Do you have time to redo the ward at my apartment while you’re in town?”
He let go of the doorknob. “You have no ward at home? What happened to the one I created for your parents?”
“It was kind of destroyed when Conlan created a ward on the apartment.”
“You should be good then. His magic is as strong as mine, maybe stronger.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “His ward also lets him and his friends enter my home whenever they want.”
“Exactly. I hired another faerie when I couldn’t get you, but he wasn’t able to take down Conlan’s ward.”
“I’m not surprised.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll come by in a few days and see what I can do.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t ask him how much it would cost because I already knew it wouldn’t be cheap. A ward like his old one could run upward of five thousand dollars, but leaving things as they were was not an option. I tried not to think of my other expenses, such as the building’s intermittent water pressure problems that were most likely going to require a very expensive plumber.
“Okay then.” Tennin opened the door. “I’m out of here. Prince Rhys is in town, and I found out where he’s having dinner tonight.”
“Of course, you did.”
He smirked. “See you around, Jesse.”
* * *
“Jesse, you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said.”
Violet’s exasperated voice broke my concentration, and I glanced up from my task. “Sorry. But you were amazing the first four times you ran through the lines. I didn’t think you needed me to listen again.”
Her scowl transformed into a pleased smile. “You’re just saying that.”
“You’re fishing for compliments. You know those lines so well you can probably say them in your sleep. Like I told you an hour ago, those people are idiots if they don’t give you that part.”
“You’re right.” She tossed the pages she’d been reading on the coffee table and sank down on the other end of the couch to grin at me. “How long have you been at that?”
I shrugged and adjusted the position of the pick I was using to free myself from the shackles on my wrists. “About an hour.”
“I thought you’d already figured out how to pick every lock in this place, Miss Smarty Pants.”
“Every normal lock. These are Agency shackles, and the lock is a lot more complicated. I’ve been working on them for the last few days, and I’m determined to get it tonight.”
In addition to training with Maren, I’d dedicated time each day to practicing with my parents’ weapons and mastering my lockpicking skills. I had also been going through Mom’s computer files that detailed every one of their jobs. Her notes were meticulous. If she and Dad ever wanted to retire from hunting, they could make a killing writing how-to books.
Violet snorted indelicately. “You expecting the Agency to arrest you?”
“Not anymore, but it never hurts to be prepared for any situation. I… Ow!” I rubbed my ear as I glared up at the tree house across the room. There was no sign of Finch, but I knew the little brat was watching me from behind the vines that covered his house. “Stop that!”
“Why is your brother throwing peanuts at you?” Violet asked, not trying to hide her amusement.
“He’s sulking because I went to the hospital without him to see Dad.” I raised my voice. “And if he doesn’t behave, I might not take him tomorrow.”
An indignant whistle came from the tree house, and I bent my head to hide my smile. I’d never follow through on that threat, but it was enough to make him stop trying to injure me.
Violet snickered and picked up the TV remote. She turned on the TV and flipped through the channels while I went back to trying to pick the shackle lock.
“Did the doctor say when your mom and dad will be moved to the treatment facility?”
“Not for another week, at least.”
As much as I wanted my parents to get better, I wasn’t looking forward to the move. Dr. Reddy had informed me last week that the facility limited family visits to only one a week for the first month. I was already trying to figure out a way around that restriction, more for Finch’s sake than mine. He was going to be crushed when he found out he couldn’t go see them every day.
“Once again, here is tonight’s top story,” said a female voice from the television. I looked up at the breaking news headline scrolling across the bottom of the screen beneath a live aerial view of a big house in Hollywood hills. “Jackson Chase has died. The twenty-one-year-old actor, who famously began an exclusive relationship with Princess Nerissa last summer, died earlier today during an apparent failed conversion.”
Violet and I shared a stunned look before turning our attention back to the television. The news anchor tried unsuccessfully to maintain a solemn expression, but the gleam in her eyes betrayed her excitement as she recited the limited details they had about the star’s death. As she spoke, a clip played that showed agents leading a sobbing dark-haired faerie from the house.
“Is that the princess?” I asked.
Violet nodded and placed a hand on her throat. “She looks totally destroyed.”
I swung my gaze back to the news report that was replaying the same footage on a loop. “Why would they risk it?”
Violet wiped away a tear. “They were in love. I guess they couldn’t bear the thought of not being together.”
“But he was too old. They had to know it would never work.”
“Love makes you do crazy things.” Violet shook her head sadly. “Poor Princess Nerissa. What do you think will happen to her?”
I lifted a shoulder. “Nothing. She’ll probably just be sent home.”
It didn’t matter that the princess had broken the law and violated numerous treaties. She was Fae royalty and not subject to punishment in our realm, no matter how serious the crime. And there were few crimes more grievous than an unsanctioned conversion.
Conversion was a simple term for the process to change a human into a faerie. It was so dangerous that it was illegal unless permission was granted by a member of the Fae monarchy. In the rare event that it was allowed, there were certain conditions that had to be met.
The first condition was that the human had to be sixteen or younger. Once the body finished puberty, the risk of it rejecting the change increased exponentially. The younger the human, the greater their chance of survival.
The second was that the child had to be terminally ill. No healthy children were allowed, and there were no exceptions.
The third condition was that only a royal could perform the conversion because of the amount of magic required. Not all royals were created equal, so only faeries with the bluest blood were powerful enough to attempt it.
Even if all conditions were met, there was still a risk of the child not surviving the change. To my knowledge, there had been only nineteen successful conversions in the thirty years the Fae had lived among us. All of the children had been under the age of sixteen.
Violet lowered the volume on the television. “I know what she did was wrong, but I feel so bad for her. If I were in Jackson Chase’s shoes, I might have done the same thing.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” When we were younger, she used to talk about what it would be like to be a faerie, but she never would have left her parents or me.”
She sighed. “You’re right. My life is too awesome to risk it.”
I snorted and went back to trying to free myself from the shackles. I had barely fitted the pick into the lock when my phone vibrated on the couch beside me. I looked down at the screen and frowned at the Agency insignia displayed there. Picking up the phone, I logged into their secure app and read the message I’d received.
“Something wrong?” Violet asked.
“It’s a notification to go to the Plaza tomorrow for an important announcement.” I set the phone down. “The only other time I got one of those messages, it was about the two kelpies in the East River.”
She pursed her lips. “You don’t think it has something to do with Jackson Chase, do you?”
I resumed work on the shackles. “They already know what happened, so I can’t see why they’d involve us. Plus, something that high level would be handled by the Agency.”
She started flipping through channels again, and it was no surprise to see most of them were covering the Jackson Chase story. This was as big as Prince Rhys’s debut last month, maybe bigger, and people would be talking about it for a long time.
I held my breath when my pick found a mechanism inside the lock that I hadn’t noticed in all my hours of trying to pick the shackles. It was cleverly hidden behind the row of pins I’d been working on for what seemed like forever, and it moved when I nudged it carefully with the pick.
My stomach fluttered when the tiny lever clicked into place, and I eagerly went back to the pins. Seconds later, I let out a triumphant whoop when the shackles sprang open.
“Jesse, over here,” Trey called when I entered the crowded lobby of the Plaza the next morning. Looking around, I found him and Bruce standing off to my far right, and I headed over to join them.
Bruce smiled broadly. “I heard your father woke up yesterday. How is he?”
“He’s still a bit out of it, but the doctor said that will pass. I’m going to see him and Mom tonight. The doctor said she’ll wake up soon.”
“Tell them they are missed,” Bruce said.
I leaned against the wall beside him. “If you want, I’ll try to get you added to their visitor list.”
“I’d like that.”
“Dad would, too.” I scanned the lobby, seeing a lot of familiar faces and a few new ones. “You know what this meeting is about?”
“No idea.” Bruce’s brow furrowed, and I followed his gaze to the main entrance where three agents had entered the lobby. My lip curled at the sight of Agent Curry, whom I’d had some not-so-pleasant dealings with last month. The fact that he’d freed me from the cage in Rogin’s basement hadn’t made me forget how determined he’d been to prove my parents were guilty of crimes they didn’t commit.
I recognized one of the men as his partner, Agent Ryan. The third man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. The way he walked in front of the other two agents told me he was in charge.
“Do you know who that is?” I asked Bruce.
“Ben Stewart.” Bruce watched the agents cross the lobby. “He runs the New York Special Crimes division.”
“I knew I recognized him from somewhere.” Ben Stewart was Agent Curry’s boss and the person who had ordered Curry to stop harassing me after Violet’s mother had talked to him on my behalf. I’d seen him in passing when I went to the Agency to give my statement two weeks ago, but he hadn’t spoken to me. I wondered why the Agency’s head of Special Crimes was at the Plaza.
The elevator opened, and Levi Solomon got off, along with the other bond agents who worked in the building. They shook hands with the three agents and conversed for a few minutes before they turned to face the room.
Ben Stewart stepped forward, and everyone grew quiet as an air of anticipation filled the lobby. Whatever he was going to say had to be big to summon us all here like this.
“Thank you all for coming today,” said the sandy-haired man who looked to be in his early thirties. He went on to introduce himself and his two companions before he finally got to the reason for his visit. “What I’m about to share with you is highly classified information. Something of this nature is normally handled within the Agency, but the need for expediency requires us to utilize all available resources.”
Translation: they were looking for someone or something, and they had hit a dead end, so they were calling in the cavalry.
The agent cleared his throat. “Six months ago, a sacred religious artifact was stolen from a temple in Faerie and brought to our realm. The faeries asked for our help in locating it, but our investigation has turned up nothing substantial so far. The disappearance has been kept under wraps, but the artifact is part of an important Fae religious ceremony that will take place this spring. This makes its retrieval one of our top priorities.”
Quiet murmurs spread throughout the room in the short pause before he continued. I held my breath as I waited to hear what he would say next.
“The artifact is called the ke’tain, and it’s a small stone roughly the size of a walnut,” he said.
My hand automatically went to the small stone hidden in my hair.
Ben Stewart continued. “The stone is round and closely resembles blue labradorite. The difference is that the ke’tain will glow when you touch it. It also has a distinct energy signature that can be detected by Fae magic. We’ll be issuing sensors tuned to pick up the ke’tain’s signature. There are no photographs of the ke’tain, but we have an artist rendering we will be sending to each of you. You should receive it in the next thirty minutes.”
“What the heck is labradorite?” Trey whispered, but neither Bruce nor I answered him. I’d never heard of it or the ke’tain.
A dozen hands shot up, and Ben Stewart pointed at one of the hunters. “Go ahead.”
“Is this thing dangerous to humans? Do we need to take special precautions with it?”
“The ke’tain is harmless to us.” The agent answered before he pointed at someone else.
“Does the Agency think there is a connection between this and the death of Jackson Chase?” another man asked.
“No. The ke’tain’s power is lethal to faeries. If Princess Nerissa had used the ke’tain, she would be dead.”
Kim, one of the few female hunters I knew, raised her hand. “Have you called us in because you think the ke’tain is in New York?”
Ben Stewart shook his head. “All we know is that the ke’tain is no longer in Faerie, which means it could be anywhere in our realm. Bounty hunters all over the US and the world are getting the same information I’m giving you now. That said, New York is one of the top five locations in the world for travel to and from Faerie, so it’s highly likely the ke’tain was brought here.”
“Can you tell us more about the artifact?” Kim called over the voices firing questions at Stewart. “Any reason why someone would want it? That might give us an idea about where to look.”
The agent seemed to think about how to answer her. “Faeries say the ke’tain contains actual breath from their goddess, and the word ke’tain translates to goddess breath. It’s one of several religious objects used in a celebration to Aedhna, and it’s never been removed from the temple until now.
“The ke’tain would have no meaning to a human, unless they were a collector of Fae antiquities. We’ve been focusing one of our investigations on known collectors and black market sellers.”
Something niggled at my mind, but there was no time to dwell on it because Ben Stewart was still speaking.
“We’ve also been watching several Court faeries of interest, but that has been tricky because of the treaties protecting them. Unless we have solid evidence proving they have committed a crime, we are limited in what we can do.”
I scowled. Here was another glaring example of how unfair the laws were that governed faeries in our realm. The authorities wouldn’t think twice about entering the home of a lower faerie, but Court faeries were held to a completely different standard. They didn’t have total immunity like their royals, but it was the next best thing. This was why I planned to study law. I wanted to fight for the rights of all faeries, not just the privileged.
“What is the bounty for this?” asked a gruff voice that belonged to Kim’s brother and hunting partner, Ambrose. Leave it to him to get right down to business.
Trey leaned over to speak in my ear. “I bet it’s a level Five.”
A level Five? A thrill went through me at the possibility. I’d learned that the bounty for a Five was an insane fifty thousand dollars, and not even Mom and Dad had ever brought in one of those.
Ben Stewart cleared his throat. “The ke’tain is irreplaceable, and it’s imperative that it is returned to Faerie as soon as possible. Therefore, the job has been classified as a level Six with a bounty of one hundred thousand dollars.”
My jaw fell as the room erupted in a clamor of voices. Next to me, Trey whooped so loudly it made my ears ring.
Rubbing my ear, I turned to Bruce, who looked as dumbstruck as I was. “I’ve never heard of a Six.”
He scratched his chin. “Because there’s never been a Six until now.”
“Are you going to join the search?” I asked him as I watched people talking excitedly among themselves while the agents tried in vain to restore order to the room.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that bounty. One hundred thousand dollars would support my family until my parents were able to come back to work, and it would help pay for the repairs needed on our building. But that much money made people crazy. If bounty hunters were competitive over level Three and Four jobs, what would they be like for a one-hundred-thousand-dollar payout?
Trey snorted. “Of course, we’re going after it. Aren’t you?” He quieted and gave me the side-eye. “You don’t have any ideas about where it is, do you?”
I shot him an incredulous look. “I heard about it five minutes ago. How would I know anything about it?”
“Because you’re super brainy and read all those books,” he said in a tone that was almost accusatory. He still hadn’t gotten over that whole bunnek incident.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but none of the books I’ve read mentioned the ke’tain or any Fae artifacts.”
Trey looked only slightly mollified. “But you are going after the bounty?”
“I don’t know yet. I could probably pick up a ton of other jobs while everyone else is focused on this one.” The competition for the ke’tain job was going to be fierce, and I’d take guaranteed income over the slim chance of a big payout.
Bruce nodded approvingly. “That’s smart thinking. We might do the same.”
Trey spun to face his father. “You can’t be serious.”
“We’ll discuss it when we know more about this,” Bruce replied.
“Jesse,” called a male voice.
I turned my head to see two young men shouldering their way through the crowd toward us. Aaron and Adrian Mercer were identical twins with blond, curly hair and hazel eyes, and they were both built like linebackers. They had been in Trey’s class, and we’d always gotten along, although we’d never hung out outside of school. Like me, their mother and father were bounty hunters, and for as long as I could remember, they’d talked about following in their parents’ footsteps.
“Crazy stuff, huh?” Aaron grinned at me. I knew it was him because of the tiny bump in his nose where it had been broken in high school. Before the break, no one had been able to tell them apart.
Adrian stood beside his twin, the two of them forming a wall between me and the rest of the room. “We wanted to get to you before anyone else.”
“Get to me?”
They nodded in perfect unison, making them look comically robotic.
“To ask you to partner with us for the job,” Aaron said as if it should be obvious. “Everyone knows how smart you are, and they’ll all want you on their team.”
Adrian flexed his impressive biceps. “The three of us would make a killer team. You’ll be the brains, and we’ll be the brawn.”
Trey stepped closer, crowding me. “Jesse isn’t going after the ke’tain, so you’re wasting your time.”
“I didn’t say that.” I elbowed him in the ribs.
He rubbed his side. “Well, if you do, it makes the most sense for you to work with Dad and me.”
“We asked her first, Fowler.” Aaron scowled at Trey, reminding me they hadn’t been the best of friends in school. I couldn’t remember the particulars, but I was pretty sure it had to do with a girl they’d both liked.
“Boys,” Bruce called sharply. “Back off, and give Jesse room to breathe. She can speak for herself, and if she wants to partner with any of you, she’ll let you know.”
I shot Bruce a grateful look as the Mercer twins backed up a step.
“Sorry, Jesse,” Adrian mumbled. “Got carried away.”
I smiled at them. “I’m flattered you asked, but I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do.”
Aaron pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to me. “This has our numbers if you decide to join us.”
“Thanks.” I took the card and stuck it in my back pocket. I could hear other hunters around us talking about forming teams to go after the ke’tain, and it felt like the day of the kelpie hunt all over again. Only this time, the bounty was much higher. The air in the room practically crackled with energy, and this was only the beginning.
No one else approached me to be on their team, but I did catch a few sizing me up. Whether they were viewing me as a collaborator or as competition, I had no idea.
It took a good twenty minutes for Ben Stewart to take command of the room again, and his first order of business was to remind us we were forbidden to share anything we’d learned here with the general public. Then he informed us the ke’tain sensors could be signed out at the Agency headquarters in Manhattan starting tomorrow.
The second he told us we were free to go, every phone in the room dinged or buzzed with an incoming message. I looked down at my phone and saw a drawing of a smooth, blue stone that appeared to glow from within. The image looked so real that I touched the screen before I realized what I was doing. Feeling foolish, I stuck my phone in my pocket.
Aaron and Adrian had wandered away, so I said my goodbyes to Trey and Bruce and headed for the exit. I had a bunch of errands to run this afternoon, but I might be able to squeeze in some research on the ke’tain before Finch and I went to the hospital this evening. It was a lot quieter there at night, and there was less of a chance of someone walking into the room and seeing him.
I stopped at the sound of Levi Solomon’s raspy voice and turned to watch the obese man lumber toward me. He was sweating and panting by the time he reached me, and I wondered how he hadn’t keeled over from a heart attack.
He waved his phone. “I know you’re probably running off to get a head start on the ke’tain job, but a level Two came in that needs to be handled as soon as possible and with some delicacy. I think you’d be perfect for it.”
“What kind of level Two?” I asked.
“Oh.” My pulse leapt. I’d never seen a banti in real life, and it was on my list of jobs I wanted to do. Levi knew that, which was why he wore a devious little smile.
“Why would a banti job require delicacy?” I asked him.
He coughed wetly. “It’s at the Ralston, and they don’t exactly like bounty hunters hanging around. But you –”
“– don’t look like a bounty hunter,” I finished for him.
I sighed, mentally ticking off the errands I could postpone until tomorrow. “I’ll do it.”
“I thought so. I’ll email you the details as soon as I get to my office.”
* * *
“Thanks for helping me out on this,” I said to Violet as we entered the lobby of the Ralston two hours later.
“Are you kidding? I’m psyched to help you on an actual job.” She bounced on her toes as she looked around the elegantly-furnished white marble lobby. “Do you think we’ll see someone famous?”
“Maybe.” I smirked and immediately sobered when I remembered seeing Lukas here on my first visit to the hotel. He was the absolute last person I wanted to run into.
We approached the front desk, and I recognized the receptionist I’d talked to when I’d come looking for my parents. He hadn’t been too happy to assist me then, and he looked down his nose at me now.
“May I help you?” he asked in a haughty tone that suggested he’d rather do anything but.
I held up my ID. “Agency business. I was told to ask for the manager.”
His nose wrinkled as if he smelled something bad. “Ah, yes. One minute.”
He called someone, and I looked at Violet, who was taking in the grandeur around us. Her family was well off, but even their lifestyle was modest compared to this. The massive chandelier in the lobby was rumored to have cost more than one hundred thousand dollars, and I’d read there was an even bigger one in the ballroom.
I turned to find a woman in her early thirties with short brown hair and wearing a dark blue suit walking toward us.
“I’m Marjorie Cooke, the day manager.” Her steps slowed, and she frowned when her eyes took in my black jeans, boots, and the short gray peacoat I’d borrowed from Mom’s closet. “You’re the bounty hunter?”
I smiled and held out my hand. “Yes.”
She shook my hand and looked past me at Violet. “And you?”
“I’m her apprentice.”
The manager gave a bemused nod as if she wasn’t quite sure what to make of us. “Please, come into the office.”
We followed her to the manager’s office. Once we’d shut the door, she sat behind the desk and invited us to take seats.
I spoke first. “I wasn’t given much information other than that you have a banti problem. What can you tell us about it?”
“It started two days ago that we know of. Some of the human guests were overheard complaining about having strange dreams. Last night, a family staying on the fifth floor reported an attack on their fourteen-year-old daughter. The father swears he saw a banti on her bed. They checked out immediately after the incident.”
Violet shuddered, and I barely hid my own revulsion. Banti would go after any sleeping human, but they loved tormenting teenagers the most. As if puberty wasn’t bad enough, we had to worry about some pint-sized Freddy Krueger wannabe giving us nightmares.
Marjorie clasped her hands on the desk. “The owner wants this taken care of as quickly and quietly as possible. We were assured you would be discreet.”
She didn’t need to tell us why the owner wanted this kept under wraps. Hotels used special wards to keep banti out, and the wards had to be redone every year. It looked like someone had dropped the ball on keeping theirs updated. The Ralston would lose their five-star rating and a lot of high-profile guests if word got out that they had a banti problem.
“We’re the soul of discretion,” Violet piped in.
I stood. “If you could give us access to the room where the incident occurred, we’ll get to work.”
The manager got up and took a card key from the desk. “It’s room 5017. I’ll show you to the stairs.”
“Can’t we use the elevator?” Violet asked as we left the office.
“We’d prefer that you were seen by as few guests as possible.” Marjorie led us down a hallway to a smaller, but no less elegant, lobby at the rear of the building where a huge, muscled security guard was stationed. I knew without asking that this was the entrance used by celebrities who didn’t want to deal with the paparazzi out front.
She handed the card key to me. “Call the front desk and let them know when you’re done. You can give Amos the key and leave by this exit.”
She turned to go back the way we’d come, and I headed for the door to the stairs on the right side of the lobby. Violet followed me, not speaking until we were alone in the stairwell.
“Do you always get treated like that when you go out on a job?”
She huffed behind me. “Like you’re some dirty little secret.”
A laugh slipped from me at her indignation. “Most people are happy to see us, but it makes sense for the staff here to want to keep us out of sight.”
We emerged on the fifth floor and located 5017. I unlocked the door and pushed it open, and we gawked at the lavish suite before us. The main living area was decorated in warm cream and blue with velvet couches, white marble tables, and delicate crystal lamps I was afraid to touch. The room boasted its own glittering chandelier, and the drapes were drawn on large windows, giving us a wide view of the buildings lining the other side of the street.
I entered the suite, taking a moment to wipe my feet on the entry rug before stepping onto the polished wood floor. Setting down my duffle bag, I went to check out the bedrooms on either end of the main room. The rooms were identically furnished except for a king bed in one and a queen bed in the other.
“This must be the room the girl slept in,” I said as I ran a hand over the soft white duvet covering the queen bed.
Violet flopped down on the bed with a dreamy sigh. “I can’t wait to be famous and stay in places like this.”
I smiled at her unwavering conviction that she would make it in Hollywood someday.
She lifted her head to look at me. “So, what now?”
“Now we catch a banti.” I went back to the main room to get my bag and carried it to the bedroom, closing the door behind me.
“And how exactly do we do that? You never explained that part to me.”
“We bait a trap and lure it in.” Unzipping the bag, I pulled out a rolled-up pair of my pajamas and tossed them at her. “Put these on.”
I grinned as I took off my coat and laid it on a chair. “Because you’re the bait.”
Banti were most active at night, but they could be lured out during the day with the right enticement. Technically, Violet was still a teenager, and she was in the same bed the banti had visited last night. I was banking on him not being able to resist coming back for seconds.
“What? No way!” She leaped off the bed like it was on fire. “Why can’t you be the bait?”
“Well, for one, you can doze off at the drop of a hat, and the bait needs to be asleep. Two, snoring attracts them.”
“I don’t snore.”
I raised my eyebrows at her, and she flushed. I continued as if I hadn’t been interrupted. “Three, one of us has to trap him, and I’m the best one to do that.”
“Fine.” Grumpily, she undressed. “But next time, I want full disclosure before I agree to help you on a job.”
“Deal.” I hid my smile as I took the things I needed from the bag. One of them was a real banti dream catcher, not one of the cheap knockoffs at the flea market. It had iron and muryan woven into it, and it was supposed to make the holder invisible to banti. I was about to find out if that was true.
The bedclothes rustled, and I looked over to see Violet lying in the middle of the bed with the cover pulled up to her chest.
“Relax.” I closed the drapes and turned off the lamp, throwing the room into semi-darkness. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
She took a deep breath. “I know. But I have to warn you it might take me a little longer than usual to fall asleep.”
“Want me to sing you a lullaby?”
A snort came from the bed. “I thought the banti was supposed to give me nightmares.”
“Ha ha.” I walked over to a chair in the corner and sat. “Now be a good little girl and go to sleep.”
We fell quiet, except for the occasional sound of Violet shifting around. After thirty minutes, she stopped moving, and her soft snores filled the room. I smiled to myself and relaxed in the comfortable chair. All there was to do now was wait.
I occupied my time by thinking about the missing ke’tain. Why would a faerie steal one of their religious artifacts and take it from their realm? Understanding the motive behind that might be the best clue to where the ke’tain was now. There were collectors of Fae objects who would pay a lot of money for it, but Court faeries didn’t need money. Lower faeries weren’t wealthy, so money could be a motive for one of them. Would a lower faerie have access to the goddess’s temple? There was so much about their world I didn’t know, despite my extensive reading on all things Fae.
I hadn’t made up my mind yet on whether or not I was going after the ke’tain bounty. It was a lot of money, too much to dismiss lightly, but did I really want to take on something like this with everything else going on in my life?
I was saved from answering by an almost inaudible whoosh of air across the room. Peering through the gloom, I was just able to make out movement at the bottom of the door. I watched in fascinated horror as green fog poured into the room from beneath the door and slowly solidified into a distinguishable shape. The creature was barely eighteen inches tall with green skin and matted green hair, and it strongly resembled the goblin I’d brought in on my first job.
Once it was fully formed, the banti turned its head slowly as if scanning the room for a threat. I didn’t dare breathe when its beady yellow eyes stared straight at me, making goose bumps rise on my arms. Pictures didn’t do these guys justice. In the flesh, they were as creepy as hell, and looked like something out of the nightmares they wove.
A soft murmur drew his attention to the bed, and he crept soundlessly toward it. He disappeared from my view for a minute before he leaped lightly up onto the foot of the bed. Violet didn’t move, and the banti stood stock still watching her until she began to snore again.
It was all I could do to sit there as the ghoulish little faerie walked over to peer down at my sleeping friend. I almost came out of the chair when he climbed up to sit on her chest. My entire body was tensed to spring, but I couldn’t move too soon, or I would lose him. I had to wait until he started to weave the nightmare because that was when he would be most vulnerable.
He held his hands out over Violet’s face, and yellow magic flowed from his fingertips. It wafted down and was immediately inhaled into her partially open mouth. A twisted little smile curved his lips as she began to twitch and jerk in her sleep, her arms pinned to her sides like someone strapped down to a table.
Not yet, I told myself as the tension in my body ratcheted up with each second that little monster was touching my best friend. When I’d promised to keep her safe, I’d forgotten I would have to stand back and watch this until the time was right.
Violet let out a whimper in the throes of a nightmare, and the banti snickered gleefully, enraptured by her dream.
I shot up out of the chair and stalked silently to the bed, gripping a large butterfly net in both hands. Violet moaned in terror, and I stumbled into the foot of the bed, dropping the dream catcher.
I righted myself as the banti’s head did a one-eighty, and those sinister yellow eyes burned into mine.
Violet cried out again, breaking us from our stare down. The banti jumped off her chest and gave me a look of pure malice before his shape began to blur.
Oh, no. If he escaped, I’d never catch him, and I was not going to fail this job. Leaping across the bed, I sprawled over Violet’s legs and brought the net down over him. The second he was inside the net, I yanked on a string along the handle, and the opening of the net closed, trapping him.
The banti began to screech and thrash weakly in the net, but the thin iron threads sewn into the mesh prevented him from changing form and escaping. At the same time, Violet woke up screaming like the devil himself was after her. She wriggled out from beneath me and scrambled off the other side of the bed.
“Oh, my God!” She swiped at her face and chest as if she could remove the feel of the creature on her.
I took a step toward her, holding up the net. “It’s okay. We got him.”
Her eyes went impossibly round, and she backed up against the window. “Keep that thing away from me,” she screeched over the banti’s caterwauling.
My eardrums hurt from the noise coming from the two of them. Desperate for some relief, I sang a few bars of the first song that popped into my head. By the third line of “Shake It Off,” the banti looked like a limp doll inside the net, and Violet was staring at me with her mouth agape.
Still singing, I set the banti on the bed and opened the net. From my back pocket, I pulled a tiny iron-infused collar I’d stuffed in there earlier and fitted it around the faerie’s neck. The collar was designed for faeries too small for shackles, and it served the same purpose, with one added benefit. It rendered the wearer mute.
I stopped singing, and the banti opened his mouth to screech at me again, only to discover the wonders of the collar. His withering glare was enough to make me not want to sleep for a week.
“You had to sing my favorite Taylor Swift song,” Violet griped. “I’ll never be able to enjoy it again.”
“Sorry, but it was hard to think with all the racket.” I held back my smile. She’d be dancing around in her room to that song by tomorrow night.
She shuddered. “Why didn’t you sing when he showed up, before he got into my head?”
“Because I had no idea if it would work on him, and we could have lost him.” I carried the banti over to my duffle bag and put him into a small animal carrier I’d brought with me. I placed the plastic carrier in my duffle bag and looked over at Violet, who was already stripping out of my pajamas. She threw them at me, and I tucked them in around the carrier to cushion it.
Violet hurriedly dressed in her own clothes while I made sure I had all my gear stowed away. She didn’t speak again until we were in the hallway, walking toward the stairs.
“Despite having the single most horrible experience of my life, I have to say you’re a natural at this bounty hunting thing.”
“I’m sorry I put you through that. What was it like?”
She shivered and rubbed her arms. “You ever have one of those nightmares where you know you’re dreaming, but you can’t wake up? It was like that, only worse. I knew the banti was sitting on me, but I couldn’t move to get him off me. It felt like I was paralyzed.”
Remorse coiled in my stomach. “God, Vi. I never should have asked you to do that.”
“I knew what I was signing up for – sort of.” She smiled for the first time since she’d woken up. “Know that was my one and only banti hunt.”
I pushed open the door to the stairwell. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“Oh, I know you will,” she quipped as we started down the stairs.
We emerged on the first floor and walked over to Amos, who resembled a stone statue. The security guard didn’t move until we were directly in front of him, and even then, only his eyes shifted to take us in.
“Can you let Marjorie Cooke know the job has been finished?” I discreetly unzipped the duffle bag and let him see the angry banti in the pet carrier.
Barely batting an eye at the faerie, he pressed a button on his headset and spoke in a voice almost too low to hear.
Violet and I wandered a few feet away to wait for him to finish the call. We were looking at a large oil painting of Princess Titania when the exit door slid open and two blond male Court faeries dressed in black entered. I barely had time to wonder about their hostile expressions when Violet let out a strangled squeak.
I looked past the two faeries at a third male, and this one I recognized instantly. It was impossible not to when his face had been plastered on almost every magazine cover, billboard, and social media site for over a month.
I took a moment to study Prince Rhys. He already wore the bored, arrogant look of a celebrity who had spent too much time in the limelight. He was handsomer in person, but so was every other Court faerie. I could see nothing extraordinary that set him apart from them.
My gaze moved to the three unsmiling, dark-haired faeries behind him that made up the rest of his personal guard. A sliver of fear went through me when I thought of the Seelie royal guard who had taken my parents. Queen Anwyn’s guard was completely separate from her son’s, but that didn’t mean they weren’t working together.
The prince and his men stopped a dozen feet from Violet and me, and one of the blonds in the lead raked his icy stare over us as if assessing us for threats. His gaze took in my inexpensive attire and narrowed on my duffle bag.
“What is your business here?” he demanded.
His arrogance rankled me, but I kept my expression and voice neutral because I didn’t want any trouble. I’d had enough dealings with Fae royalty and their guards to last me a lifetime.
“I’m here on Agency business,” I said.
The other blond guard moved to block the prince from our view. “You do not look like an agent.”
“That’s because I’m not an agent. I’m a bounty hunter.”
His suspicious gaze shifted to Violet, who stood mutely at my side. “And her?”
“She’s my assistant.” I moved protectively in front of her. The last person I wanted paying any attention to my best friend was a member of the Seelie royal guard.
“I’ve never met a bounty hunter,” said a new voice.
“Your Highness…” protested a voice from the back as the prince shouldered past his guards to stand before me.
His five guards automatically formed a semicircle around him. I swallowed as I faced some of the deadliest faeries in the world, who looked ready to end me if I so much as blinked wrong.
I looked into the blue eyes of the prince and got the strangest feeling I’d met him before, which was absurd. I definitely would have remembered meeting the Seelie crown prince.
We stared at each other for a few seconds before his mouth curved into a smile that transformed his aristocratic face from aloof to boyishly charismatic.
“I am Prince Rhys of the Seelie Court,” he said as if there was anyone over the age of ten who wouldn’t recognize him by now. Reaching out, he took one of my hands in his long fingers and brought it to his lips.
“Jesse James.” I didn’t want to give my name, but it would be rude not to. Chances were his men would have me investigated the moment they were out of sight, and giving a fake name would only raise their suspicions.
“Like the outlaw?” At my look of surprise, his eyes sparkled with humor. “One of the things I like most about your world is your history. I particularly enjoy the stories of the Wild West.” His gaze moved to my hair, which I’d worn in a ponytail for this job, and lingered there for a few seconds. “Are all bounty hunters as lovely as you, Jesse James?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t think the male hunters would appreciate being called lovely.”
Prince Rhys laughed. “I guess not.” He glanced over my shoulder. “And who is your quiet friend?”
Reluctantly, I moved to Violet’s side, giving the faeries a full view of her. “This is Violet. She’s helping me on a job today.”
“Two beautiful hunters. I must be goddess-blessed.” As he’d done with me, Prince Rhys lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it.
Violet made an incoherent sound. I slanted a look at her and found her staring dumbly at the prince. Biting back a grin, I discreetly elbowed her in the ribs. It was enough to shake her from her daze, and she smiled shyly at him.
“It’s…nice…to meet you,” she managed to utter.
“The pleasure is all mine.” His gaze returned to me. “I mean no offense, but are you really a bounty hunter? I must confess I imagined hunters were like the tough western lawmen.”
“I’m not offended. I get asked that all the time.” I pulled my ID card from my back pocket where I always kept it. His guards looked coiled to attack, and it reminded me of how wary Lukas and his men had been with me in the beginning. Shaking off the memory, I held up the card for them to see.
One of the blond guards took the card and studied it intently before subjecting me to the same scrutiny. “You don’t look strong enough to hunt.”
I shrugged because it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. “Hunting isn’t only about strength and speed.”
“Jesse is super smart,” Violet squeaked.
The guard looked skeptical as he handed me my card, but the prince appeared to be even more intrigued. The last thing I wanted was the attention of another royal, especially one from Seelie.
I was trying to think of a way to extricate Violet and me from the encounter, when Amos called, “Miss James.”
Relief flooded me as I faced him. “Yes?”
“Miss Cooke said to thank you for your help.” He pointed to the exit. “You can leave through there when you’re ready.”
“Thanks.” I adjusted the duffle bag on my shoulder and turned back to Prince Rhys. “It was nice talking to you.”
His smile slipped. “You’re leaving?”
“Yes. Our work here is done.”
“Then you will stay as my guests for dinner,” he said imperiously as if that settled everything. “I wish to talk more and to hear about your job.”
All five of his men looked ready to object, but I beat them to it. “Thank you, but we have plans.”
“Surely you can change your plans for one evening.” Prince Rhys flashed me the same flirtatious smile I’d seen on TV that made women everywhere swoon. He was charming, but I felt no attraction to him. Lukas had made sure I wouldn’t want another faerie again.
I shook my head. “I’m afraid I can’t. It’s a family obligation.”
His brow furrowed. “Tomorrow then.”
“Between family commitments and my job, I really don’t have much free time. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Yes.” His frown eased, but his eyes still showed disappointment. Something told me it was a foreign emotion for him.
“Hope you have a great stay in New York,” I said as I snagged Violet’s sleeve and started for the exit.
The moment the doors shut behind us, I sucked in the cold air, but I didn’t slow our pace until we were around the building and back on the street. It took that long for Violet to find her tongue again.
“Holy Shih Tzu!” She let out a small squeal. “Did that really happen?”
I steered her toward the Jeep. “Do you mean the part where we met the prince or the part where you forgot how to speak?”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I have no idea what came over me in there.” She looked wistfully back over her shoulder. “I can’t believe we met Prince Rhys, and I was a blithering idiot.”
“You weren’t that bad, and I’m sure he has that effect on most people.”
“Not you,” she retorted.
“I have a good reason to not want anything to do with the Seelie crown prince.”
Violet’s face flushed. “Oh, Jesse. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Don’t worry about it. Besides, you wanted to meet someone famous at the hotel, and they don’t get more famous than he is.”
“You can say that again. Every celebrity I meet from here on out will pale in comparison.”
We reached the Jeep, and I stowed my bag in the back. “I’ll drop you off at home before I take our little friend to the Plaza.”
She pouted as she buckled her seat belt. “I don’t get to go with you?”
“You’re not a licensed bounty hunter,” I reminded her. “You helping me on a job isn’t against the rules, but it’s frowned upon. I don’t want to give Levi or the other bond agents any reason to stop hiring me.”
“Fine.” She slumped in her seat.
“You’re not missing much; trust me.”
She waved a hand. “It’s not that. I can’t believe I met Prince Rhys, and I didn’t think to get a single picture. My agent keeps telling me I need to do more to bump my social media following, and I let the perfect opportunity slip right through my fingers. I’ll never hear the end of it if she finds out.”
I started the Jeep. “I won’t tell her if you don’t.”
* * *
“Stop squirming,” I hissed into the front of my coat as the elevator stopped on the fourth floor of the hospital. “You’re going to get us caught before we even get there.”
Finch went still, not that I could blame him for fidgeting. He had already been excited to see Dad before I’d gotten the call an hour ago letting me know Mom was awake. The drive here had seemed to last forever.
“And remember what I told you. Mom and Dad don’t know I’ve been hunting, and we’re not going to tell them until they’re feeling better.”
A low whistle was his reply. Finch didn’t lie, especially to our parents, and I’d had to explain several times why a lie of omission was okay in this case. I hoped he didn’t forget that in his excitement to see them.
The elevator doors opened, and I hurried down the hall to their room where a female agent stood guard this time. I’d seen her a few times before, so she didn’t stop me when I opened the door and entered the room.
I saw my father first, slightly reclined in his bed, his color improved, and looking more alert than he had yesterday. He beamed at me before he turned his head to look at the other bed. I followed his gaze to my mother, who lay on her back with her eyes closed.
I hurried over to her bed. Her feeding tube was gone, and she looked good, despite the gauntness in her face. Dr. Reddy had assured me my parents would regain the weight they’d lost once they were awake and eating solid foods again.
“Mom?” I said softly, not wanting to startle her.
Her eyes fluttered open, and I was surprised when she looked at me without any of the confusion my father had shown the day before. She stared at me for a moment, and then her mouth curved into a small smile as love filled her green eyes.
I smiled back, unable to speak at first because of the golf ball-sized lump in my throat. There were so many things I wanted to say to her, and I was on the verge of bawling my eyes out like a five-year-old.
An impatient whistle came from inside my coat, and my mother’s eyes widened. Grateful for the diversion, I reached for my zipper. “I brought someone to see you.”
I’d barely pulled the zipper all the way down before Finch poked his head out. The second he saw our mother, he made a sound like a wounded animal and scrambled out onto the bed.
“Careful,” I warned him, but he was already hugging her neck with his face buried in her hair.
Mom’s eyes welled, and she lifted a shaky hand to cover his small body. “My…babies,” she croaked, wincing from the effort. Her throat had to be sore from the feeding tube.
“Don’t try to talk.” I laid my hand over hers, drawing strength from her touch, as I answered the question in her eyes. “We’re okay, just really happy to see you.”
She closed her eyes with a sigh and stroked Finch’s back with her thumb. I left them to go to my father, who was watching them with shimmering eyes. I leaned down to hug him, and his arms enveloped me in a tight hug.
“She asked for you the moment she woke up,” he said against my ear. “Your mom is a strong woman.”
“I know.” Smiling, I pulled back to kiss his cheek. “How do you feel today?”
“Pretty good for a goren addict.”
I sat on the side of his bed. “You remember what happened to you?”
“No. The doctor told me about the goren.” He pressed his lips together. “He also said we have to go to a treatment facility, so it’ll be a while before we can come home.”
I squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry about that. Finch and I are holding down the fort. You guys focus on getting better.”
He turned his warm hand over to hold mine. “I’m so proud of you.”
“I have been told I take after you.” He had no idea how true that was, and I wondered what his reaction would be when he learned what I’d really been up to since they disappeared.
“Jesse,” my mother said in a scratchy voice.
I hurried over to her. “Do you need anything?”
She lifted her free hand and clasped mine. “I have everything I need.”
Finch whistled softly, and I looked to where he sat beside her shoulder. He made the sign for dad, so I picked him up and carried him to the other bed. The moment I set him down he flung his little arms around our father’s neck.
“Hey there, Buddy.” Dad cleared his throat as he patted Finch’s back. “I think you’ve gotten bigger since I last saw you.”
Finch sat up, signing, I help Jesse. We’re partners.
Dismay filled me, and I jerked my gaze from him to Dad. I was scrambling for an explanation when the door opened. “Finch,” I whispered urgently, opening my coat. He leaped inside, and I zipped it as a male nurse entered the room.
The nurse smiled and went to my mother’s bed to check her vitals and to ask if she was in pain. Then he came over to do the same with my father before he left, saying he’d be back in two hours.
Dad crooked a smile at me. “Why do I think you two have done this before?”
I unzipped my coat again to let Finch out. “We’ve had to learn to be sneaky. Finch is good at hiding.”
Finch nodded eagerly and signed, I’m sneaky.
That earned a laugh from our father, and the sound was the best thing I’d heard in a long time. Feeling lighter than I had in months, I left him and Finch to visit while I went back to my mother, who wore a contented smile as she watched us.
“You look different,” she said softly.
“Different how?” I sat on the chair between the two beds.
A frown creased her brow. “I’m not sure. More…grown-up.”
I shrugged. “Guess it had to happen sometime. I will be nineteen in a few months.”
She didn’t look completely satisfied with my answer, but she didn’t press it. We talked for a few minutes until I noticed she was struggling to keep her eyes open. The moment I stopped talking, she fell asleep.
Dad and Finch were deep in conversation, and I decided not to interrupt them because Finch needed this time with him more than I did. I took out my phone to check for messages, and then I spent a few minutes searching for information on the ke’tain.
I wasn’t surprised when my search brought back zero results, and I made a note to visit the Library of Congress web portal when I got home. They had a restricted Fae section that was available only to members of law enforcement, including bounty hunters. I’d already spent hours there searching for any mention of goddess stones. I hadn’t had any luck, but if there were any records of Fae religious artifacts, they were sure to be there.
I found it odd that the Agency had given us so little information about the ke’tain. If it was important enough to create a new job level and huge bounty for it, why weren’t they sharing everything they knew with us? It didn’t make sense.
An hour and a half later, Mom and Dad were sleeping peacefully, and I had to swear to Finch that we’d come back tomorrow in order to get him to leave. It had been a long day, and I still had to stop and buy groceries on the way home. On top of that, they were calling for freezing rain tonight. I hated driving in bad weather, and I wanted to be home before the roads got slippery.
A light snow was falling by the time I parked on our street. The temperature had dropped, and I made sure Finch was zipped inside my jacket before I got out. I was already shivering when I opened the cargo door to grab the groceries. Eyeing the shopping bags stuffed into the cage that took up the back of the Jeep, I calculated whether or not I could carry them all without having to make a second trip.
My heart lurched, and I spun to face Conlan, who stood a few feet away. His face was illuminated by the streetlight, revealing a shadow of the easy smile he always used to wear.
“What are you doing here?” After Lukas, Conlan’s betrayal hurt the most, and seeing him was a painful reminder of how gullible I’d been to believe he had actually been my friend.
The practical part of my brain told me I should be afraid, even though he didn’t appear threatening. He was a member of the Unseelie royal guard, and the last time I’d been this close to him, he’d looked at me with contempt. But the hurt and anger welling up in me crowded out every other emotion.
“You know what? I don’t care.” I showed him my back as I gathered the grocery bags, cursing silently when I realized I would need to make two trips.
“Let me help you.” He moved in to take the bags from me.
“No,” I snapped. “It’s a little too late for your help.”
He flinched, and regret filled his eyes. My heart softened for the second it took for me to remember seeing his face through the bars of my cage.
“I’m so sorry, Jesse. We failed you when you needed us the most.”
His admission took me by surprise, and I had to school my expression as I went back to my groceries. “What happened? Did Faolin torture that weasel Rogin until he told the truth?”
“Faris told us.”
I sucked in a breath. “Is he…?”
“He’s recovering slowly, but he’s going to make it.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” I had only known Faris for a few hours, but I’d felt a connection to him in that short time.
“I hear your parents are going to make a full recovery, too. I’m happy for you.”
I stiffened. “How do you know about my parents?”
“Faolin keeps tabs on certain persons of interest and –”
“No!” I pointed a finger at him. “My mother and father are not persons of interest to you. Faolin got his brother back, and I got my parents. You tell him to focus on his own family and leave mine alone.”
My chest was heaving when I finished, and I fought to get my emotions under control. It was something I had struggled with since my ordeal, and I’d thought I was doing better. But the mere mention of Faolin or any other faerie watching my parents was enough to set me off.
Conlan raised his hands. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Faris asked Faolin to check on your parents because he wanted to know how you were doing. He asks about you every day.”
Some of the tension left me. “Well, now you can tell him you saw me, and I’m doing great.”
“Better than ever.” I turned back to the groceries so he wouldn’t see the truth on my face.
“Faris has been asking to see you.”
“That’s not a good idea.” Not even my concern for Faris would be enough for me to go near that building or its occupants again.
I huffed. “Do you really need me to spell it out for you?”
He was quiet for a long moment, and I was hoping he’d left when he spoke again. “Lukas won’t be there if that will make you more comfortable.”
I wanted to tell him Lukas’s presence wouldn’t bother me, but I wasn’t that good a liar. “Did he send you, or did you take it upon yourself?”
“I requested to be the one to talk to you. You should know I wasn’t the only one.”
I didn’t ask who else had wanted to come. I was happy Faris was recovering and that I wouldn’t have to worry about Faolin hunting me down to avenge his brother. But I was moving on and putting all of this behind me. I couldn’t do that if I let Conlan and his friends back into my life.
I picked up as many bags as I could carry and closed the cargo door before I faced Conlan again. The disappointment in his eyes told me he knew what my answer would be.
“I’m going to politely decline your invitation and ask that you give Faris my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s cold out here, and I need to take care of these groceries.”
He nodded once and stepped aside to let me pass. I half expected him to follow me or call after me as I crossed the street to my building, but he didn’t.
I didn’t look back until I was in the lobby, and I wasn’t sure how to feel when I saw Conlan standing where I’d left him, watching me. I wasn’t scared exactly, but it did make me nervous. Something told me I hadn’t seen the last of him or his friends.
We hope you enjoyed this sample!
Buy the book now in ebook, paperback or hardcover.